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Michael Anthony cultivates a subtler kind of fiction
Posted: Friday, November 7, 2003

By Raymond Ramcharitar, Express/TT

Michael AnthonyAt the age of 73, Michael Anthony lives in the same house he has lived in for 30 years, and continues to do, in a self-effacing way, the thing he has been doing for most of his adult life: serious writing. The difference between his 73rd and his other years, is that this year, Anthony will be given arguably the widest recognition he has ever enjoyed for his efforts, which have included the production of 25 books of fiction and non-fiction (mainly local history); the recognition will take the form of an honorary doctorate from UWI, St Augustine.

The only other award Anthony has received is a Humming Bird medal from the government of Trinidad and Tobago-but you don't get the impression that this apparent lack of recognition bothers him overmuch. In the study of his house on Long Circular Road, Anthony produces a series of commemorative plaques he has received over the years. A good number of them are from Mayaro, where he was born and spent the first 10 years of life. These, from the pleasure evident in his handling of them, are worth a great deal to him. "My friends in Mayaro don't forget me," he says with a grin.

Anthony left Mayaro in the 1930s to go to San Fernando to attend technical college, and thereafter, began an apprenticeship with Texaco at Point Fortin. "I was in the foundry," he says, "it really wasn't what I wanted to do. There wasn't very far you could go from there."

He was interested in writing from them, and had published poems in the Trinidad Guardian. But a friend of his, with whom he shared a passion for sports, acquired a scholarship to England, and encouraged Anthony to come there if he was really serious about writing.

"Once there, I realised that the (British) newspapers and magazines weren't for me… it was another reality than the West Indian," he says. He concentrated his efforts on writing stories for Bim, the Trinidad Guardian, and the BBC's Caribbean Voices radio programme. A young Trinidadian named Vidia Naipaul, who had recently completed studies at Oxford, was working as a producer for Caribbean Voices, and Anthony recalls sending him some poems and a short story.

"He wrote back to me saying ‘Michael Anthony, promise me you will never write another poem. But the short story has promise,'" recalls Anthony in remarkably good humour. The story, and others, was broadcast, but Naipaul was to figure again in his life.

After the Caribbean Voices went off the air in 1958, Anthony was left with a number of short stories, which he compiled sent to a publisher. The publisher advised him that he ought to try a novel, since short stories didn't sell unless they were by an established writer. So he set about doing that.

Shortly afterward, he met Naipaul in the street, and Naipaul told him he had just sold a novel to the publisher, Andre Deutsch. "And he (Naipaul) told me ‘I told the lady there (Diana Athill) that she should expect something from you, soon' so the other publisher shot out of my mind," says Anthony. He began to work on what would become The Year in San Fernando.

When he submitted it, he was told that it was autobiography, and wasn't really a novel. He was advised to "‘put it down for three months then look at it again'. But I didn't intend to look at it ever again. I started to work on another story"-this was The Games Were Coming.

But that wasn't a straightforward success either. In the first draft of Games, the novel ended without the protagonist ever taking part in the games. The publisher requested that Anthony actually put in the climax rather than, in a prematurely postmodernist stroke, leave the reader hanging. He did, and the novel was published.

A few months after, he went back to the first manuscript, "and I was shocked. It was awful," he says. He duly rewrote The Year In San Fernando. But if the publishers were pleased, the critical reception of the work was, as Ken Ramchand put it, "cool". Neither does Anthony enjoy as high a profile even locally as Earl Lovelace or even Leroy Clarke. This is a loss to local discourse, as well as Trinidadian literature.

In the first major work on West Indian literature, The West Indian Novel and Its Background, Ramchand devotes a generous portion of his chapter on "Novels of Childhood" to enjoining readers to appreciate Anthony, and not to misinterpret the precision of capturing the consciousness of his young narrator, as a limitation on the part of the writer, as the "patronising" reviewer in Bim had done-in fact, wrote Ramchand, "Anthony is practicing an art of fiction of a very subtle kind".

Edward Baugh, writing in the major (1979/1995) collection of critical essays, West Indian Literature, concurred with Ramchand, and amplified this assessment, saying that Anthony's leaving the "big" themes like colonialism and nationalism allowed him to master the smaller, but no less important areas of the psyche, landscape, and particular moments. And indeed, Anthony admits to the heavily autobiographical leaning of his work-though he says he this is true of every writer, from Hemingway to Dickens.

The last of what are considered to be Anthony's major works of fiction, the collection of stories Cricket in the Road, after the novels The Games Were Coming, The Year In San Fernando, and Green Days by the River, was produced in 1973. But the years of that productive decade which began with his first novel being published in 1963 were also active ones for him. Three of his four children were born in England, and the fourth was born in Brazil. (All the children now live in the US, but returned for the presentation ceremony on Friday.)

Anthony had been advised to leave England for health reasons-a chronic condition hospitalised him every few years, and he was told by doctors that the reason was the British climate. He tried unsuccessfully to get a job in Trinidad from England, and was advised by friends that Brazil was the better bet-and it was; he left England in 1968. He worked in Rio de Janeiro as an English teacher, but by 1970, he had met the Trinidadian consul there, and was working for the Trinidad government. It was around this time that the deteriorating economic situation in Brazil forced him to return to Trinidad.

On his return, worked for about two months at the Trinidad Guardian, and he was offered a job by his erstwhile foundry employer, Texaco, to produce their in-house publication. But the job he wanted was on the National Cultural Council, then headed by JD Elder.

"But Elder wouldn't take me on," he said. But Elder's boss did.

A number of writers were commissioned by the national library in 1972 to produce articles for publication on literary topics; as it turned out, the editor of the newspaper which was supposed to publish the articles lost all but Anthony's, which was on literature for young readers. After it was published, says Anthony, Dr Williams instructed Elder to hire him.

Thus began 16 "very pleasurable" years with the National Cultural Council, wherein Anthony directed his attention to history. His interest was first piqued by street names in Woodbrook, (Carlos, Ana etc) which were the legacy of Siegert family, who brought Angostura bitters to Trinidad. He subsequently produced works of history on Port of Spain, San Fernando, towns and villages in Trinidad, and a book of "firsts" in Trinidad, which was reissued by Paria press this year.

After he left the National Cultural Council in 1988, Anthony was left free to pursue his writing full time. He had recently ventured into fiction again-he published All That Glitters, last year's High Tide of Intrigue, and has Butler-Till the Final Bell (on the 1930s labour leader, TUB Butler), forthcoming in December.

The honour from UWI, though, is by no means a pinnacle, if it is long overdue: apart from the forthcoming novel in December, Anthony has three projects in progress: a work on culture and custom in Trinidad, one on Trinidad and Tobago since Independence, and another novel.

Hopefully, with the attention from UWI will come another long overdue installment in Anthony's career as a writer: a serious, full-length critical study. As a first step towards that, the Creative Arts Centre will host a "semi-lime" on Sunday on Agostini Street, where dramatised portions of Anthony's works will be read.

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